Boat fires

The annual BSS incident report was published in March and provides a summary of the incidents over the last year. A total of 132 boat incidents, based on 124 events, were recorded up until February 2019. In three events, fire affected more than one boat. There were 54 fires and CO incidents on inland waterways, which is the lowest number for three years. In 18 of the reported incidents, the cause is unknown or inconclusive. In 24 of the 54 fire and CO incidents, the boat was used for residential or extended use, but this may be an underestimate as, in a further seven fire/CO incidents, the ‘use class’ is not known. There were three boat fire fatalities, all liveaboards; the highest number in one year since 2012. All victims lived alone on their boats and alcohol consumption was confirmed as a significant factor in two of the incidents. None of the boats is thought to have had a smoke alarm on board.

Of the three fatal fires, the first was in February at Stone, on a narrowboat, with a single female fatality. The fire started when embers fell from a stove through its open door and onto a combustible floor surface. The stove door could not close as the catch was broken (BSS Check 8.10.5 which is advice only). The hearth extended less than 225mm and had no upstand (which would not be compliant with BS8511:2010). The second was a fire and explosion in March at Boroughbridge on a small cruiser, with a single male fatality. It had an unknown cause, but is likely to have been a candle or oil burner. Three other boats were damaged in the resulting explosion and fire, one completely destroyed. The third was a fire and explosion in May at Sharpness on a small GRP motor sail yacht, with a single male fatality. It is believed that the fire started in the petrol-engine space after maintenance work the day before.

Home Office figures indicate that fire fatality incidence in houses is 1 in 341,666 people, whereas the fatal fire rate for liveaboard boaters this year was 1 in 7,333, suggesting that it is far more dangerous to be involved in a fire on a boat as a liveaboard than it is as a house resident. The Home Office Fire Safety Unit has published information that homes with smoke alarms improve survivability by eight times, which is likely to be equally true for liveaboard boaters. The BSS plans to review smoke alarm policy in due course. The BSS is monitoring the significant growth of boats used as domiciles and the likely demographic taking on this lifestyle, possibly through financial pressures to live aboard as a form of low-cost accommodation. It is also assessing the likely impact that this would have on the installation, maintenance and use of powered and fuelled boat systems. It aims to ensure that boats feature sufficiently highly in Fire and Rescue Service prevention initiatives, especially where there are hotspots of liveaboard boaters that present concerns.

Near-fatal fires:

  • An explosion in April on a leisure cruiser at Ely caused major injuries to two adults and one child, including serious burns. The fuel for the explosion is not yet confirmed as gas or petrol.
  • A fire in September near Bath on a liveaboard narrowboat undergoing a refit caused major injuries to two adults. The owners were temporarily using a LPG cartridge picnic stove to heat food and water. A fireball occurred after boiling a kettle, setting light to the male occupant, who jumped into the canal to extinguish the flames. The boat caught alight and was destroyed. Both occupants were hospitalised, and the male occupant has life-changing burn injuries. A BSS press release emphasised the published guidance not to use picnic appliances on board and not to change cartridges on board.
  • A woman was also taken to hospital after a canal-boat caught fire on the Grand Union Canal in London, but no further information has been provided.
  • An owner was refuelling his petrol outboard engine on a lock landing stage. The petrol vapour ignited and the owner suffered burns to his chest and arms. The boat, then alight, drifted toward a weir boom.
  • In August, two ‘retirees’ spent their savings on an unregistered boat in a marina and three days later a rapid fire developed on the boat at its mooring. The two occupants jumped into the water and were admitted to hospital for treatment. No further details are available and the owners have not responded to requests for information from the navigation authority officer.

Rented craft incidents:

A rented boat with a private BSS certificate caught fire due to pyrolysis in the wooden surround of the solid-fuel stove, causing substantial damage to the boat in the stove area. Both tenants required treatment for smoke inhalation and a hospital check-up, but they effected repairs and moved back aboard.

(Compiled by Graham Watts, BSS Manager, and Rob McLean, BSS Communications Manager, from investigative work by Dave Washer, BSS Technical Assistant)